At this time every year, I and countless others review the past year with a focus on shortcomings (or to put a more positive spin on it, "wishes" for improvement for next year), and begin to mentally prepare that list.
It's the resolution list, that favorite American pastime that speaks to the eternal optimist in us, built on the back of a Protestant work ethic that tells us deep down we can be better -- if only we try hard enough! It's the bright, marching ticker of steely "resolves" that by mid-February start to wilt and fade and by July are usually forgotten.
My list for 2012 typically would look something like:
- Get finances in order! Stay on budget!
- Work out more! Three times a week in some sweaty capacity, at least!
- Eat better! Superfoods and nano-nutrients at every meal!
- Spend more time with my son!
- Spend more time writing!
- Spend more time with friends!
- Spend more time talking to my mom!
- Spend more time relaxing!
- Don't stress about time!
As I get older and hopefully wiser, I've come to realize that simple is better. Which got me thinking about some of my resolutions from a younger age.
I remember my most common resolution from my late teens and early 20s, one that saw itself repeated year after year: "Be nicer."
It sounds simple, bland and perhaps a bit banal. But don't be fooled -- I can tell you from having attempted it year over year for a good part of my adulthood (apparently never feeling like I quite succeeded), it's one of the hardest things you can try to do.
I started thinking about "niceness" and how it's become underrated in our society (especially in a place like New York City). What's niceness next to brilliance, wit, talent, success, beauty, intelligence, drive, grace or style? Industries from media to entertainment bestow numerous awards honoring many of these qualities, but not for simple niceness. Most people I know in New York would probably take the neutral "interesting," "unique," or even "unusual" over "nice." We worship at many other altars before we bow to "niceness," and we spend a good amount of our time and energy cultivating these other facets of ourselves, often at the sake of growing in kindness. If I'm being honest with myself, I know that since I moved to New York almost 10 years ago, I have focused on almost every quality on that list over niceness. It's probably because those other qualities are flashier, sexier, louder. Nice is quiet. Nice's rewards aren't as immediate or trumpeted.
But niceness, or its close sister -- kindness-- is, I think, one of the greatest weapons we can wield in this life.
I'm not talking about false politeness or fake anything -- nothing gets to me more than "politeness" for politeness's sake. I'm also not talking about a boundary-less, spineless, losing of one's self.
I'm talking about a really retro, really quaint, even sweet notion of kindness, of putting someone else before our needs or feelings, for an instant (in the smallest instant, because it's the smallest instances that count). And that it might spring from somewhere genuine and generous.
It's really, really hard.
But at those important times in our lives, niceness is what counts. When you've been hit hard with one of life's blows, you don't want the most stunning and talented and brilliant people around you (in fact, you might want to tell them to go away) -- it's usually kindness that helps us heal. When we're at our most vulnerable, or joyful, when our hearts are open, niceness is what elevates us, both giver and recipient.
A year of "being nicer" for me might look like:
- Saying hi to someone I don't feel like chatting with
- Not getting impatient with a customer service person
- Holding the elevator door open for someone (yes, I'm that person)
- Following through on a plan when I really would rather cancel
- Biting my tongue on a criticism, even when I have the perfect zinger
- Using that extra energy to take the edge out of my voice
- Not getting annoyed at someone for screwing something up (e.g., "You should have taken the West Side Highway!")
- Returning a call or email more promptly
- Rolling my eyes less
- Giving someone the benefit of the doubt
Niceness is often about giving someone else something out of our own reserves -- which isn't easy, especially when our reserves are depleted (that's why I'm going to pair this resolution with the practice of keeping a daily gratitude list). But that's why this humble notion is a most important and beautiful thing. Niceness, at its core, is a little bit of sacrifice.
Everyone's list will look different -- I don't have on here things that come easily to me, that are arguably quite nice, like going out of my way to give someone a compliment, encouraging others, writing thoughtful notes, being patient, smiling warmly a lot at random strangers (that's right, I do these things, too!). The list is about being "nicer," not "nice" -- there has to be that element of betterment in there.
So this year, I'm going to eschew traditional resolutions and dust off my old tried and true one: "Be nicer." I'm going to go retro in a city like New York and see if niceness can't become an asset as admired as ingenue talent, a multimillion dollar penthouse or supermodel legs. I'm going to pitch to New York magazine next year's new list: "30 Under 30: The Nicest People in Manhattan." I'll try. And who knows? Maybe in the process a few good things will happen this year. I'm still an optimist.